By STEPH WECHSLER
Special to the RJRC
February 26, 2016
Jian Ghomeshi’s trial has given Canadians a crash course in the parameters of consent and a comprehensive case study on how the media covers sexual violence.
Farrah Khan, co-ordinator of the Office for Sexual Violence Support and Education at Ryerson University, called the climate around the case “tumultuous,” and urged journalists to be mindful of how they tell stories involving sexual assault.
“When you’re reporting, people are listening,” said Khan, who was invited by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre to discuss a guide she co-authored for journalists on covering sexual assault.
Khan said the media plays a key role in shaping how survivors are perceived and creating a climate in which they feel able to come forward.
“Survivors are listening, community members are listening, institutions are listening. So how you shape your stories and how you have this conversation has a direct impact on how people feel safer maybe to disclose, to have the conversation, or to talk to their peers.”
The reporting on the former CBC radio host’s trial for sexual assault has generated controversy on the nature of memory. What does a “perfect victim” look and act like? What makes a survivor’s testimony credible? Is forgetting details or seeking to reconcile with an assailant a sign that a survivor is not believable?
Khan told students that although myths about sexual violence persist, journalists can play a role in debunking them.
She pointed to “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,” a guide developed by femifesto, a feminist collective that works to define and dismantle rape culture. The guide offers practical tools for journalists, and outlines many of the insidious ways rape culture is advanced by media.
One way rape culture manifests is through the “perfect victim” myth, Khan said. The media perpetuates this idea by using language that prescribes how a survivor should behave.
Implied is the notion that for the complainant to attain “perfect victim” status, their recall of facts must be “superhuman.” They must have the foresight to disclose information their own counsel hasn’t mentioned. Their behaviour toward their assailant must not contradict popular assumptions of how we should act toward those who have wronged us.
Journalists should be conscious of the conflicting messages women receive, Khan said, since survivors are frequently given contradictory advice once they come forward. Khan described instances where survivors are prepped for legal proceedings. She said they’re often told, “‘Don’t dress too pretty, but don’t dress dowdy. Don’t look too innocent, but don’t look too slutty.’”
The onus is put on women to avoid violence: “ ‘Don’t go on dates alone, you could get sexually assaulted. Don’t go on dates in groups, because you could get gang raped. Don’t go on dates with your boyfriend because he could sexually assault you, but don’t go on dates with strangers because they’re completely different and they may hurt you too.’
“Women are constantly told to live in fear.”
All of these prescriptions about how women and survivors of assault should behave contribute to a narrative that media reiterate when reporting on the few cases that make it to trial. (Khan said that of 1,000 instances of sexual assault, only 33 are reported to police and only 12 result in charges laid. Of those, six are prosecuted and only three assailants are convicted.)
Keeping quiet, ignoring or even seeking to befriend assailants are commonplace for survivors. Khan noted that globally, one in three girls and one in seven boys experience sexual abuse before they’re 12.
“That means we’ve already been taught from a young age that we have to be okay, mend, repair, forget, appease, befriend our abusers, because usually they’re in our families,” she said.
This shifts accountability onto survivors, and foments the guilt and shame that prevent more people from coming forward.
Many circumstances exclude a survivor from “perfect victim” status. The guide advises against using the term “victim” for these reasons, as it connotes someone “passive, perfectly compliant with police and prosecutor’s demands, not angry, sexually pure (which isn’t just about personal history, it’s about race, class and other identities and what meanings are attached to them.)”
Khan said that the media omits certain narratives of sexual assault and pointed to a study from Saskatchewan that concluded “indigenous women received three and a half times less coverage, their articles were shorter and they were less likely to appear on the front page.”
Even at a time when conversations about sexual violence are gaining traction, assaults of people who don’t neatly fit into “perfect victim” caricatures remain underreported. A 2011 Egale report cited in femifesto’s media guide says that 49 per cent of trans students experience sexual harassment at school, as do 40 per cent of gay and 33 per cent of lesbian students. Based on femifesto’s findings, incidents of sexual violence against those who identify as queer are vastly underreported in media.
The guide also notes that sexual assault involving racialized women or women with disabilities garners little coverage.
Sex workers don’t fit the “perfect victim” model, Khan said. By underreporting incidents and using the word “prostitute” in headlines and articles, the media fails to capture their humanity.
“The majority of people that do sex work are oftentimes from marginalized communities, so what are we saying about marginalized bodies, too?”
Based on social beliefs that bolster rape culture, people assume men do not experience sexual violence, so they don’t fit the “perfect victim” model either. As a result, “when journalists talk about men being sexually assaulted, oftentimes men are faced with what women are faced with in reality and in the world, which is mockery, which is people saying it didn’t happen,” Khan said.
The characterizations of the accused or perpetrators need to be carefully considered as well, Khan said. Often, articles will name the achievements or status of the perpetrator. Descriptors like “star athlete, or well-liked business man or well-liked priest” serve to portray the perpetrator as upstanding, which can make the survivor seem less credible by contrast.
In discussing the Ghomeshi trial, it’s important to remember the women who worked alongside him, Khan said.
A 2013 study from the International Women’s Media Foundation showed that 48 per cent of women journalists globally have experienced sexual harassment at work, and 14 per cent have experienced sexual violence. Considering the nature of the industry – working as a public figure, in closed rooms, in precarious labour positions – it’s important to “think about how you’re going to do self care for yourself when you’re telling stories,” she said.
In all cases, consciously constructing questions and framing incidents within a vast range of sexual assault types is important, Khan said.
“Think about how you’re naming survivors. Think about their strength. Think about how they’re moving forward.”
Some of the best practices listed in the femifesto guide include:
- Ask your sources how they want their story told and how they want to be identified.
- Use words that properly convey the violence and lack of consent in sexual assaults.
- Convey that surviving sexual assault does not wholly define survivors.
- Challenge your own assumptions about the impact and reality of sexual violence.
- Don’t treat survivors of sexual assault as if they’re all alike.